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Dry Eye vs Pink Eye

Our eyes are incredibly sensitive and very vulnerable to external and potentially damaging factors like the sun, wind, debris, and even pollution. Because of this, it’s easy to understand why most people experience a common eye condition at some time or another during their lives. Whether it’s simply dry eye, astigmatism, or conjunctivitis, there are a wide range of eye related conditions which all come with their own selection of treatments, symptoms, causes, and preventative measures. Because the symptoms of conjunctivitis (pink eye) and dry eye are very similar, it can often be difficult to tell the two apart. What’s more, dry eye can actually be a side effect of conjunctivitis.

Recognizing Dry Eye

Dry eyes can easily occur as a result of many different factors. Some people suffer from dry eye because they spend too much time sitting in front of a computer, whereas other people are simply unable to produce the right amount or quality of tears. In some cases, dry eye is caused by excessive tear loss, abnormalities within the eyelids or tear-production glands, changes in tear film composition, or other underlying conditions.

Because different forms of dry eye can interact with each other, and pink eye and dry eye can also interact, inflammation can become more severe, leading to a vicious cycle of ongoing discomfort. While inflammation doesn’t always manifest itself as swelling or redness, this can be a symptom that patients experience whether dealing with dry eye, or pink eye. Dry eye generally causes a number of the following symptoms:

  • Stinging sensation
  • Light sensitivity
  • Mucus in the eye
  • Blurry vision
  • Excessive irritation
  • Fatigue of the eye
  • Inability to wear contact lenses
  • Heightened reaction to environmental irritants

Diagnosing and Treating Dry Eye

As you might expect, treatment for the condition of dry eye will depend on the cause of the symptoms. For those who have post-surgical dry eye, or abnormalities in the eyelid, surgery may be required. On the other hand, many people may be able to find relief through the use of prescription eye drops and ointments. Of course, before a treatment can be given, dry eye must be diagnosed.

Usually, a good ophthalmologist may be able to recognize the presence of dry eye syndrome when performing a typical exam and listening to your symptoms. In other circumstances, you may need to have a special test known as a Schirmer’s test to see whether your eyes are making too many or too few tears.

Importantly, when treating dry eyes, it is often recommended that patients stay away from eye drops that are intended to treat bloodshot or red eyes, as these can make the condition worse.

Recognizing Pink Eye

Pink eye, known among medical circles as conjunctivitis, is an inflammation that takes place within the clear, thin covering around the white part (sclera) of the eye. It can also take place inside of the eyelids. While the conjunctiva of the eye (the layer at the top of the eye) is transparent, it does contain blood vessels, and anything that triggers inflammation could cause the blood vessels to dilate, leading to red, bloodshot eyes.

Conjunctivitis, like dry eye, can be caused by many factors. However, many eye doctors will only use the term pink eye when referring to viral conjunctivitis, which is a highly contagious form of eye infection that is typically caused by a number of different viruses. Based on cause, the most common types of conjunctivitis include:

  • Viral conjunctivitis – caused by a virus, this form of conjunctivitis is highly contagious, but it can also clear up on its own after a number of days, without the need for medical treatment.
  • Allergic conjunctivitis – caused by irritants such as dust, pollen, and animal dander, allergic conjunctivitis can be a seasonal occurrence or may flare up frequently throughout the year.
  • Bacterial conjunctivitis – caused by bacteria getting onto the eye surface, this form of conjunctivitis can be seriously damaging to the eye if it is left untreated for too long.

Symptoms of Pink Eye

Generally, the main symptom used to determine whether someone is suffering from pink eye is the fact that the eye has a pink or reddish appearance. Other symptoms associated with pink eye can differ according to the type of conjunctivitis the patient is suffering from. For example:

  • Viral conjunctivitis causes itchy, watery eyes that are sensitive to light.
  • Bacterial conjunctivitis causes eye discharge in the corner of the eyes.
  • Allergic conjunctivitis causes burning, watery, and itchy eyes that are often accompanied by a runny nose, light sensitivity, and stuffiness.

Just as the symptoms of pink eye can change according to the reason or cause behind your condition, the treatment recommended for pink eye will depend largely on the type of conjunctivitis you are suffering from. For instance:

  • Viral conjunctivitis – people suffering from viral conjunctivitis will find that the problem will run its course over a number of days without the need for treatment. Home remedies of applying cold wash cloths to the eyes several times a day can be helpful at relieving symptoms.
  • Bacterial conjunctivitis – patients suffering from bacterial conjunctivitis will often be prescribed antibiotic eye drops from their doctor, or various ointments designed to help remove the dangerous bacteria.
  • Allergic conjunctivitis – people who experience conjunctivitis as a result of allergies can access relief through taking allergy medications. In some cases, however, they may need to begin taking these medications before an allergy flare up begins.

Conditions that Mimic Pink Eye

Importantly, it’s worth noting that an eye may become red or pink for a variety of reasons beyond conjunctivitis. An eye may be pink as a result of exposure to a foreign body or chemical, or in response to an abrasion or scratch on the surface. Dry eye is also a frequent cause of eye redness, as well as overuse of the drops used for decongestant purposes.

Some less common but often more serious causes of red eye can include uveitis (inflammation which occurs inside of the eye), elevated eye pressure, and more. In some situations, small blood vessels in the conjunctiva may also leak blood that is trapped under the conjunctiva, and this leads to the presence of redness.

Often it is difficult to tell what kind of eye problem you are suffering from simply from sight or symptoms alone. Frequently, the symptoms and appearance of dry eye and conjunctivitis can mimic each other, and failing to access the right treatment for your condition could lead to significant eye problems that may even cause permanent vision loss.

If you ever experience dry, irritated, or pink/red eyes, it’s important to schedule an eye exam as early as possible to determine the underlying cause.

Resources and References:

Pink Eye Conjunctivitis) – General information about pink eye (conjunctivitis). (emedicinehealth.com)

Pink Eye or Allergies – How to Spot the Difference – A guide on how to spot the difference between allergic reactions and pink eye. (Vision Care Specialists)

Is It Dry Eye, Allergy Or Infection? – Information about spotting the difference between dry eye and infections. (Review of Ophthalmology)